In recent years lots of academics and others have been re-assessing what maps are and what they are for. During Europe’s colonial expansion, maps showed the lie of the land, picturing locations in ways that made it easier to explore and possess them. However Europeans are not the only ones who have sought to describe places and orient themselves within them: many indigenous peoples in Africa, the Americas and Australia, had lots of ways of describing and representing places in order to work out where they were and where they wanted and needed to be. Indigenous maps were not necessarily pictures like European maps – they could be dances or stories or forms of architecture or the design of villages. As long as people understood their function, these forms of performance could function as maps.
In this sense, African-Caribbean dance can be understood as a form of mapping. Often the dances draw on the same motifs that feature in indigenous mapping (the prominence of lines and circles for example), and often they make reference to similar cosmologies or ways of understanding what the world is and what people’s role in the world is (for example making connections between societal relationships and astrological order). Of course, over the years, as well as being performed in Africa, many dances have travelled with the African diaspora, so they are not always performed in the same locations or with the same place/societal references as they were when they were first performed. One thing that has remained constant is the importance of the body, as both the means and the message of locating the self in the world. The body is the means of locating the self because it is used in dance to offer a series of symbols and connections with the world - for example many African and Caribbean dances emphasise firm contact between the feet and the ground. We can read this as a symbol that indicates one of the messages we can take from dance – that the body is connected with the earth and is important in its materiality: the body is not to be dismissed as an inferior vessel of mind or spirit.
The Dancing Maps project places our dancing bodies side by side, all doing the same move, to see whether this helps us to feel and re-think where we are in the world – not just where we are in relation to key landmarks or GPS co-ordinates, but where we are in relation to each other. It is hoped that the experience of performance and the visual effects of bodies dancing side by side will help us to locate ourselves through our bodies, not just through our concepts or our words, and will therefore help us to locate ourselves differently.
If you want to read more about indigenous mapping, book 3 of the History of Cartography is recommended: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/HOC/index.html , and you can see excerpts from Pat Noxolo’s academic article on dance as mapping by clicking here.